#2 Becoming an Ally

Bringing Strength with Humility


Most of the work done in countering racism, particularly institutional or systemic racism, needs to be done in relationship. One of the critical relationships – and one that is deceptively challenging – is the relationship between White and Black allies.  For White people the central challenge is to bring both strength and humility to that relationship.  This section focuses on that ally relationship from the White person’s perspective.


I.   Definition – Being an Ally

II.  The Central Pitfall

III. Elements in the Profile of an Effective Ally

“Most of the work done in countering racism, particularly institutional or systemic racism, needs to be done in relationship.”

 I.  Definition – Being an Ally


There are lots of definitions.  Here is one, but you may find others that speak to you.  Nicole Asong Nfonoyim-Hara, the Director of Diversity Programs at Mayo Clinic, defines allyship as:  


“When a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down systems that challenge that group’s basic rights, equal access, and the ability to thrive in our society.”


Another way to look at “allyship” is to view it as a practice that requires focus and work over time vs. solely as an identity.


 II.  The Central Pitfall


Given the difficulty and complexity of the challenge to counter racism, we must bring all of our capabilities to the role of ally, along with an openness to new discoveries – from awareness to capabilities.  Yet that is discouraged in most of the literature on being an ally.  The message is framed different ways, but too often the message is to be a “sidekick, not a savior.”  


There is no question that we, as White people, have a great deal to learn about racism, ourselves, and Black people if we are to be effective allies.  There is also no question that we will need to deepen some of our strengths and develop new ones to successfully take on a new and daunting challenge.


But to be effective allies we can’t become smaller to avoid being inappropriate because the last thing Black people need in taking on racism is White people who are too tentative, unsure, or holding back.  To be effective allies we need to bring our strengths and our power and we need to bring them with humility.  We also need to understand that there will be times when we will need to take on a leadership role and many times when we will need to take on effective follower roles.  


It’s About Strength/Power AND Humility


“I am a powerful and humble ally.  I bring qualities, experience, knowledge and skills.  AND this is a new domain for me and I have a great deal to learn about myself, about racism, and about the experience of Black people in America.”


Can I say that?  We can’t diminish ourselves (the “aw shucks phenomenon”) if we are to be effective allies.  Racism is too tough a challenge.  But we do need to approach the challenge and being an effective ally with a genuine sense of humility.


It’s About Following AND Leading


We do need to “know our place”, but our place is not an either/or place nor is it a static one.  “Leader” and “follower” are roles, not people.  I can be an effective ally when I am in a follower role and I can be an effective ally when I am in a lead role.  I need to know when to be in those roles.

  • I need to know when to step back, support, be an understudy.  I can bring my capabilities and experience to bear in a follower role.
  • I need to know when to step up and take a lead role.  I can be powerful in a lead role – and still be humble, open, aware of my gaps, and aware of the capabilities of others.


III.  Elements in a Profile of an Effective Ally


There is no formula for being an effective ally because people and situations vary too much.  However, there are a number of qualities, characteristics and behaviors to be seriously considered and adopted.  Examples are presented here, but there are many more in the downloadable PDF.



  1. I take on the struggle as my own and don’t expect credit for being an ally.
  2. I am clear on the characteristics, qualities, knowledge, skills, and experience that I bring to the roles that might be asked of me, but don’t broadcast them as qualifications for being an ally.
  3. I “show up” – I focus on action and put myself on the line.
  4.  I expect to make some mistakes, but do not use that as an excuse for inaction.

Focusing on Others 

  1. I amplify the voice of the people I am supporting, knowing they can raise themselves up.
  2. I listen more and talk less.
  3. I do research to learn about the history of the struggle in which I am engaged.
  4. I seek and build diverse community.
  5. I support the leadership of people of color – consistently, but not uncritically.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before

starting to improve the world”

Anne Frank


Being Conscious

  1. I am self-aware.  I self-reflect and respond to what I discover.
  2. I am increasingly aware of my implicit biases.
  3. I am committed to the never-ending personal growth required to be an effective ally.
  4. I do the inner work to identify how I participate in racist systems.  I am conscious of White advantage.
  5. I am aware that as soon as I consider myself not a party to the problem, I am.

Being Accountable – “How am I Doing?”

  1. I apologize without excuses or rationales.
  2. I know that the people with privilege must initiate the change toward countering racism.
  3. I avoid retreating into privilege when I’m tired, overwhelmed, or don’t want to engage.
  4. I am genuinely open to feedback and accept others’ input as an opportunity to grow, become more effective, and have a greater impact.
  5. I do not expect others to teach me.  I take responsibility for finding the resources to develop my awareness, understanding, and competence.
Accountability is the glue that bonds commitments to results.”
Will Craig
Engaging Others
  1. I engage people who share my identity in being allies.
  2. I establish trusting relationships with those who can influence change.
  3. I lean on other allies – I don’t try to do it alone.